On the border of S Province, there was Tongsan.

Late at night, Yan Yin got off the train and spent the night in the duty room of the county public security bureau. The next morning, just as dawn was breaking, Chief Forensic Doctor Gou Li arrived with the technical team. They yawned and mustered their energy, then followed the only Santana police car from the local police station as they made their way up the mountain.

Recently, Qian Sihao’s enthusiastic brain may have been awakened by the biting cold of the mountains. He repeatedly expressed that he could stay at the local police station and wait for them to return before joining them. Although Gou Li didn’t understand why Captain Qian from Gongzhou would be here, he envied Qian Sihao for being able to stay at the foot of the mountain and warm himself by the fire. He wished he could switch places with him.

“I have such a thick layer of fat all over my body. I’ve pampered and nourished them with good food and drinks throughout the spring, summer, and autumn, and this is how they repay me! Only when the time comes, do I regret having too much body fat! It’s such a burden!” Gou Li lamented, wrapping himself in a blanket and huddling in the car. “Lao Yan!”

Yan Yin sat by the open car door, smoking. “What?”

“Aren’t you cold wearing so little?!”

Yan Yin wore the police department’s officially issued scarf and the fabric of his dark gray tailored windbreaker looked expensive. The exquisite tailoring outlined a strong and compact figure. He casually replied, “Because muscle density is higher than fat density, so the cold resistance index is different.”

Gou Li: “…”

Outside the car window was the rugged winter forest of the mountains. The on-site technical team, local police, forest police, and a dozen police dogs dispersed in various directions, delving deep into the mountain trails for the search.

“I’ve always had a question,” Gou Li leaned closer, pointing into the distance, “In such a large country like ours, with so many high-risk and unstable mobile populations like Teng Wenyan; if a criminal kills someone and throws the body deep into the mountains where few people tread, and if no one discovers it for ten or eight years, will it never be found?”

Yan Yin gave him a strange glance. “How could that be?”

Gou Li stared back innocently.

“Even the most unstable mobile populations still have social connections. As long as there are traces left behind, their disappearance will inevitably be discovered. Moreover, when it comes to discarding a body, truly remote and rarely visited deep mountain forests are generally inaccessible to ordinary people. Objective factors such as transportation, manpower limitations, and body decomposition create comprehensive constraints,” Yan Yin said, holding his cigarette and pointing to the sparse woods in the distance. “Even criminal groups with money, manpower, and firepower like drug trafficking organizations would never be able to dispose of a body without a trace. Look at where we are now, although it’s relatively remote, it can’t be considered a primitive jungle.”

Gou Li murmured thoughtfully.

“The tire tracks left by the off-road vehicle fleet, the significant damage to the ground and trees, as well as the eyewitness accounts of local residents… The more elaborate the disposal of a body in the mountains, the more traceable clues it leaves behind,” Yan Yin flicked the cigarette butt to the ground and crushed it with his foot. “There is no such thing as a truly untraceable crime. It depends on the extent of police efforts and the stage of development of forensic technology.”

As if to confirm his words, the in-car walkie-talkie suddenly crackled, and both of them turned around simultaneously.

“Attention, all teams, attention!” the voice of the on-site forensic examiner came through the channel. “In search area 012, at six hundred meters in the three o’clock direction, vegetation has been significantly disturbed. I repeat, in search area 012, at six hundred meters in the three o’clock direction, please proceed. Over.”

Yan Yin and Gou Li exchanged a glance and picked up their walkie-talkies. “Understood, we’re following!”

In the forest, the morning mist slowly dissipated, and the light finally penetrated the treetops, illuminating the hazy gray hills. The police car stopped not far from a hillside, and several local police officers, holding shovels, gathered in the middle of the clearing, vigorously digging the earth covered with decaying leaves.

“We found it, we found it!” Someone suddenly shouted, “Forensic Doctor, quickly call Director Gou over!”

A corner of fabric faintly appeared in the pit. The shovels immediately stopped, and Gou Li hurriedly led two intern forensic doctors over. At this moment, he didn’t care about the cold anymore. He personally took the shovel, crouched in the pit, and slowly dug out the hard object beneath the loose soil. Indeed, after only a few shovels, a partially decomposed hand suddenly appeared in everyone’s sight.

“Be careful! Lift it gently!”

“One, two—three!”

After three long years of being deprived of daylight, the two bodies were finally unearthed one after another, exposed under the open sky.

It is unclear whether it was like this when they were alive or if they were intentionally arranged like this after death. Teng Wenyan and Wang Rui lay hand in hand on the plastic sheet, covered in soil, their empty eye sockets staring at the gloomy sky. Their clothes were in tatters, and only Wang Rui’s upper garment could barely be recognized as blue. Teng Wenyan wore an indistinguishable round-collared dress, and her feet were in rotten and tattered sneakers.

The criminal camera clicked and snapped photos. Gou Li instructed someone to lay out the investigation board and ordered all non-technical personnel to stand far away from the pit. Then he put on a fresh pair of gloves, took the forensic kit handed to him by his assistant, and squatted down next to Wang Rui’s body to examine it for a moment.

“The victim’s head was struck. The skull exhibits concentric circles and radiating fractures, which are typical features of depressed comminuted fractures. The center of the concentric circles is very clear, and there is no interruption or crossing between the radiating lines. They extend all the way to the top of the head. Therefore, it is preliminary inferred that the weapon used should be a stone or blunt metal object, and there was only one strike.” Gou Li gestured for the assistant forensic examiner to help him turn the body over. After a while, he looked up and said, “Although there are also fractures of the spinous processes from C6 to T1, they should have been caused when the victim was pushed into the pit and fell on their back. The direct cause of death is still the cranial brain injury.”

While he conducted the examination, his assistant swiftly made notes. There were many people at the scene of the autopsy, but apart from the birds in the woods, there was no movement or conversation nearby.

“The perpetrator treated the victim with considerable brutality. After striking the skull, they immediately pushed the body into the pit. Either they were very confident that the victim would die on the spot, or they completely disregarded the possibility of being buried alive.” Gou Li stood up and sighed, “In short, it was a fatal blow. The perpetrator was cruel, ruthless, and had great strength. Based on the foot length and tibia length, the victim’s height before death should be one meter seventy-two. By calculating the angle of the strike, the height of the perpetrator should be… hmm…”

“Less than one meter eighty-five, weighing around eighty kilograms. They are a rare ambidextrous individual,” Yan Yin said indifferently.

Gou Li uttered a surprised “Hmm?” and asked, “How do you know?”

Yan Yin’s gaze grew darker, but he didn’t answer.

Not only did he know, but he had also clashed with the assailant three times.

Gou Li sensed that he didn’t want to talk about it, so he shrugged and stopped asking. He walked over to Teng Wenyan’s skeletal remains, half-kneeling beside them. He first collected samples of the soil and fabric attached to the bones, and suddenly let out a soft sound.

“What’s wrong?”

“… It’s clean, too clean.”

The local police officers at the scene didn’t understand, and confusion showed on their faces.

“The skull is intact, ruling out the possibility of being struck. The hyoid bone and thyroid cartilage are intact, indicating that the victim was not strangled. The ribs, long bones, pelvic bones… even the spinous processes show no obvious damage,” Gou Li examined Teng Wenyan’s entire skeletal remains and said in suspicion, “She wasn’t thrown into the pit roughly like the male victims. Instead, she was carefully placed at the bottom of the pit, gently laid flat on the ground.”

The assistant couldn’t help but ask, “So what was the cause of death?”

Gou Li used forceps to carefully open the attachment and pointed to the center of the skull between the eyebrows, signaling, “Here.”

The assistant froze—clearly, the round hollow was a bullet hole.

“The way the perpetrator killed the female victim, as well as the different manner in which the body was handled compared to the male victims, shows obvious emotional connections,” Gou Li shook his head and said, “It’s indeed very strange. This might be one of the top three most peculiar perpetrators I’ve ever encountered.”

It’s not peculiar at all, Yan Yin thought, but he didn’t reveal any emotions on his face.

To Black Spade K, the male figure being executed represented himself—a version of himself that he despised, regretted, and wished to eliminate. And the executioner was the substitute for Jiang Ting during his adolescence.

He carefully selected a beautiful and outstanding young girl to act out the drama that filled the void in his heart. It was normal for there to be an emotional connection with the actress playing Jiang Ting, even if it was someone as unsuccessful as Teng Wenyan.

But the most critical question remained unanswered: Why was Teng Wenyan chosen?

How did this shampoo girl with only an elementary school education overlap with Jiang Ting’s image in Black Spade K’s mind?

“Old Yan, what do you think?” Gou Li asked loudly, “What can you say now?”

Yan Yin snapped out of his thoughts. “You take the forensics team to search the surrounding area for any clues, especially for any remnants like bullets or casings left at the bottom of the pit. I’ll make a call to the bureau from the car to report.”

Gou Li waved his hand.

·

Perhaps because he had been in contact with Chief Lv frequently recently, the list of contacts had a row of extension numbers from the Chief’s office. Yan Yin didn’t think too much about it. This task was personally assigned by Chief Lv, so it didn’t matter if he reported directly. He dialed the number but ended up being transferred to the voicemail after a long period of silence.

“Hmm?” Yan Yin pondered for a moment, then called the secretary’s office and asked, “Is Zhang in?”

Zhang Mi was the first secretary of the Lv Bureau. For some unknown reason, the person who answered the phone sounded a bit nervous and said, “Zhang Mi… Zhang Mi is out for something.”

“What about Chief Lv?”

“Chief Lv didn’t come today.”

—Didn’t come?

Yan Yin was somewhat taken aback and asked, “Did Chief Lv go out for a meeting? When will they be back in the office?”

“No, I don’t know.” There was a hesitant pause on the other end of the phone, followed by a question, “Is there something urgent that Deputy Yan needs to say right now?”

In fact, it was common for Chief Lv to go out for meetings with their secretary. However, for some reason, a certain nerve deep inside Yan Yin’s mind trembled slightly, and an inexplicable sense of unease gradually crept over him.

“… No, it’s nothing.” He coughed and said, “I’ll call back later.”

The operator on the other end immediately hung up the call.

Yan Yin sat alone in the car for a while, repeatedly fiddling with his phone. He felt unusually restless. Through the car window, he could see Gou Li and the others bustling around the pit, while the police dog was panting, held back by the police officers. No one noticed him for now.

After hesitating for a moment, he sent a WeChat message to Jiang Ting:

[Are you awake? What did you eat?]

A few minutes passed, but there was no response from Jiang Ting.

“Old Yan! We found something!” Gou Li stood up and waved from a distance, signaling towards the police car.

Yan Yin looked at the time. It was still before nine in the morning, and perhaps Jiang Ting hadn’t woken up yet.

He sighed, deleted the message he had just sent, put his phone back in his pocket, and got out of the car.

·

“A mineral water bottle.” Gou Li, with a protruding belly and hands on his waist, sweat dripping from his forehead, stood at the bottom of the pit and raised an empty plastic bottle covered in dirt that had turned yellow. He shook it towards Yan Yin and exclaimed, “As expected! The ‘signature’ of the habitual killer may be delayed, but it will never be absent—sigh!”

Although he sighed, the local police were puzzled when they saw this empty water bottle. Gou Li didn’t explain much either. He put the plastic bottle into an evidence bag, gestured to his assistant to preserve it, and continued, “No bullet, no casing. The forest weather and humidity have caused significant damage to the scene. We can’t find any footprints or biological materials with identifying value. There’s no way. You two, come and help me lift the skeletal remains. We’ll conduct further autopsy once we’re down the mountain.”

The local police officers immediately responded and went down, making a rustling sound. Yan Yin took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and also put on gloves and shoe covers before descending into the pit. He directed the police officers to hold onto different corners of the plastic sheet and tried to lift Teng Wenyan’s skeletal remains as flat as possible.

Clatter—

As the plastic sheet moved, dust and sand fell down. Yan Yin’s gaze unconsciously fell on the clothing on the surface of the bones. Suddenly, he froze. “Wait.”

The police officers didn’t hear and continued walking.

“Wait! Stop!” Yan Yin shouted, “Put her down!”

Everyone turned their heads, and the police officers were startled, not knowing what to do. They clumsily put the plastic sheet back on the ground.

Gou Li hurried over, panting, and asked, “What’s wrong with you, Old Yan? Hey! What are you doing?”

“Turn her over for me, quickly!”

Gou Li didn’t understand at all, but seeing the stern look on Yan Yin’s face, he immediately had his assistant forensic doctor carefully turn the fragmented skeletal remains over, revealing the back.

When Gou Li had briefly examined the back of the body while Yan Yin was making a call in the car, he had already removed the surface dirt, leaving only dried and solidified mud. Therefore, when the body was turned over, the back of the clothing was exposed for everyone to see, including the sudden contraction in Yan Yin’s eyes—

The dress Teng Wenyan was wearing was a two-piece, with a light-colored round-neck short-sleeved top. On the back of the fabric was an almost indistinguishable light red pattern.

—It was a semicircle overlapping a horizontal line, with several faint red lines radiating from the semicircle.

Even if the most imaginative adult were to see it, it would only be a child’s simple sketch of the rising sun. However, the moment their gazes met, Yan Yin abruptly closed his eyes, and in the depths of his mind, another identical sweatshirt emerged—the bloodied clothing left at the scene after Ajie sniped the 502 drug bust.

The clothes that Jiang Ting had worn in the orphanage all those years ago.

“What’s wrong, Old Yan? Did you find something?”

Yan Yin’s chest rose and fell slightly and rapidly beneath his shirt. He waved his hand to indicate that he was fine, took several pictures of the remains, and walked away from the pit without saying a word. Gou Li was quite worried and followed behind, asking loudly, “Are you okay?”

“I need to make a call to confirm something.” Yan Yin hoarsely said, “You all carry on.”

The buzzing confusion and discussion quickly faded away. Yan Yin’s mind was in turmoil. He walked quickly to the back of a police car, took out his phone, and almost reflexively dialed Jiang Ting’s number—

Do you know that Teng Wenyan and you both came from the same orphanage?

How much do you still remember about the orphanage where you were kidnapped together with the Black Spade K all those years ago?

Countless questions turned into cutting blades, tearing through the crevices of his mind. However, just as the screen of his phone displayed the dialed number, before the dial tone could sound, Yan Yin was suddenly awakened by a sharp pain in his temple and immediately pressed the end call button.

The air seemed to freeze, and it wasn’t until some time had passed that the noise and footsteps of the crowd gradually permeated the scene from a distance.

Yan Yin lowered his sharp-eyed gaze, his eyes cold and fixed on his reflection on the surface of the phone screen.

After a moment, his Adam’s apple moved, and he opened his phone again. From his WeChat list, he called up Ma Xiang:

“Help me check if there was an orphanage near the Tongsan area in Province S twenty years ago,” Yan Yin pressed the voice message button and said in a low voice, “Once you find it, send me the detailed address.”

·

The remains of the victim, who had suffered three years of injustice, were lifted out of the pit, wrapped up, and prepared to be transported down the mountain to the nearby county funeral parlor for further detailed autopsy. Gou Li tirelessly directed the newly arrived intern forensic doctor to maintain balance and move with utmost care. Then, he personally covered the skeletal remains in the back of the car with a white cloth, recited a few words of Amitabha, and slammed the door shut.

The assistant rushed over. “Chief Gou, your phone is ringing!”

“I’ve told you countless times, it’s ‘Gou’ after ‘Chief’!” Gou Li quickly took off his gloves and answered the phone, “Hello, Deputy Wei?”

The phone signal in this area was very poor, and the background noise on the other end was extremely loud. Gou Li walked a few steps away from the open space to hear Deputy Wei’s deep voice ask, “Are you alone? Is Yan Yin with you?”

Gou Li tiptoed and looked around. He saw Yan Yin standing about ten meters away, his eyebrows furrowed and his head lowered, seemingly engrossed in texting someone.

“He’s nearby. Should I call him?” Gou Li casually raised his foot to walk over, but before he could, a voice from the phone stopped him, “No, stay where you are!”

“What?”

Deputy Wei took a deep breath to stabilize his unusually sharp tone:

“Listen carefully, don’t tell Yan Yin a single word of what I’m about to say. Keep it from him until I return to the bureau.”

“I’m currently at the hospital. Chief Lv has had an incident.”

Gou Li’s eyelids jumped!

“Chief Lv was attacked near Yan Yin’s residential area. Because it happened in a remote location, it wasn’t discovered and reported until early this morning. We’re all at the hospital now, having just escaped danger.”

“…” Gou Li’s trembling lips uttered a question, “Who did it?!”

In the hospital corridor, Deputy Wei looked at the open door of the ward. Several experts from the Provincial Criminal Investigation Detachment and others from the Municipal Bureau, including Yu Zhu, were gathered around the bed, watching as Chief Lv slowly opened his clouded eyes. The anxiousness on everyone’s faces couldn’t be concealed.

Chief Lv seemed to have aged ten years overnight. His face appeared haggard and swollen, with an oxygen mask covering it. Every time he spoke, a puff of white vapor escaped: “I saw his face, I didn’t… I didn’t mistake it…”

Before he could finish speaking, a violent cough erupted from his chest, causing everyone to exclaim in alarm. Several experts turned pale: “Who? Who did it?!”

“Hoo, hoo, hoo…” Chief Lv gasped heavily, barely hoarse, “It was Gongzhou, the one who died in the drug bust—”

“That Jiang Ting.”

Time came to a halt, the hands of the clock swiftly rewound, back to ten hours ago—

Whispers echoed in the world, and in the dark alley, one could barely see their own hand in front of their face. In the distance, vehicles passed on the street, their blurry lights flickering, and the shining puddles shattered instantly as they were trampled upon.

The hem of Jiang Ting’s black coat swayed with his steps. His cold and pale face was concealed beneath a black umbrella. When he turned a corner in a brisk stride, a clear sound of “clang!” rang out.

The folding knife he often carried was discarded near a garbage bin. The blade clanged as it hit the ground, and a drop of blood slowly dissipated in the dirty water, flowing quietly towards a nearby drain.